CINCINNATI — Marvin Lewis last week compared his excitement level each year during the NFL Draft to "watching paint dry." Life isn’t supposed to be so stressful if you’re prepared for what you’re doing.
The Bengals used to be easy pickings for draft analysts looking to criticize a team. Those days are long gone as the franchise has melded its old ways of depending on coaches to provide the heavy lifting of scouting with a beefed up personnel department and a streamlined approach. The Bengals stay true to their draft board; seldom do you see them stray or reach for a player where less than a decade before that wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.
The foundation of the team that won the AFC North last season and has been to the postseason four of the last five seasons has been laid in the draft and the team’s ability to sign quality undrafted college free agents. A lot of cities and franchises look to the draft as a way to kick-start or bring hope to their seasons. The Bengals have passed that stage of their evolution.
The draft is now about adding to the foundation, not building it. The Bengals drafted eight players, headlined by Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard in the first round and LSU running back Jeremy Hill in the second round. Fourth-round pick Russell Bodine, a center from North Carolina, might be the one draft choice with the best opportunity to start sooner than later. The Bengals traded up in the round to get Bodine.
"The good thing is they don’t have to be starters this year, and we won’t feel bad about it," said Lewis. "They could be. I hope they merge to be quickly. That means they’re beating somebody out, and that’s what this is about. This team has got to get better than we did a year ago; that’s what we’ve got to be all about all the time."
The Bengals addressed seven different position groups with their picks; they also took defensive back Lavelle Westbrooks with their final choice of the draft. They took four players on offense and four on defense.
The biggest losses in the offseason were defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins, both of whom signed as unrestricted free agents with Tampa Bay. Andrew Whitworth will slide back out to play left tackle and the Bengals signed Marshall Newhouse as a free agent to address their depth at the position. They didn’t draft a tackle.
They did draft an end in the third round, West Virginia’s Will Clarke, who has a lot of similarities to Johnson when Johnson was picked in the third round of the 2009 draft. Johnson turned a lot of positives of the physical skill set he possessed into one of the best all-around ends in the NFL.
It’s the same challenge Clarke will face.
The Bengals even gave Clarke jersey No. 93 — Johnson’s old number — although that might change.
"If I could have put him in a different number, I would have," said Lewis while laughing. "I was thinking about that (Saturday) morning. Michael Johnson had an incredible career here. We’re not cloning anybody; we’re trying to make sure this is the first Will Clarke. What Michael did goes without saying. Will has big shoes to fill, if he could ever fill those shoes left by M.J., just because of the person, the player, and the man that Michael was and continues to be. But he’s got some great role models in that defensive line room and a great opportunity to come in here and learn how to be an NFL defensive lineman from some very, very good people and uplift us right away."
The Bengals didn’t need to be exciting in the draft. They need to be exciting in September, October, November and December so they can have another shot at changing their January fortunes. What they did over the last three days will help them.